(Beirut) – Bahrain authorities should immediately release opposition political leader Ebrahim Sharif. Sharif is facing a lengthy prison sentence solely for peaceful criticism of the government.

Protesters hold pictures of political prisoner Ebrahim Sharif as they participate in a protest held in the village of Sanabis, west of Manama, Bahrain on December 22, 2012. 

Sharif, the long-time secretary general of the National Democratic Action Society, has been in detention since his arrest on July 11, 2015, on charges that he encouraged the overthrow of the government and “incited hatred” in a speech he gave the day before. According to Sharif’s lawyer, the speech constitutes the only evidence that prosecutors have supplied to support the charges. The 19-minute speech is available online. After reviewing the speech, Human Rights Watch could not find any language suggesting that Sharif called for violence.

“Most high-profile critics of the government are in jail or in exile, yet Bahrain’s allies in Europe and the United States babble on about a reform process,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director. “Anyone with an Internet connection can see for themselves just how ridiculous these charges are.”

Most high-profile critics of the government are in jail or in exile, yet Bahrain’s allies in Europe and the United States babble on about a reform process. Anyone with an Internet connection can see for themselves just how ridiculous these charges are.

Joe Stork

Deputy Middle East Director

A Bahraini court will deliver its verdict on February 24, 2016. Sharif is accused of violating articles 160 and 165 of Bahrain’s penal code, which prohibit advocating “the overthrow or change of the country’s political, social or economic system with the use of force, intimidation or such other illegal methods” and any act that “expressly incites others to develop hatred or hostility towards the system of government.”

But Sharif’s speech repudiated violence and supported peaceful protest, as this excerpt shows: “The nature of the political movement in this country has been, from the beginning, peaceful and moral. The opposition understands well that violence is the domain of the authority. Violence is where the authority has the upper hand over opposition, but morality is where the opposition has the upper hand. Violence is the authority’s playing field, not ours. This was understood by all of the opposition, all of the youth and citizens, and this is why the slogan was raised, ‘peaceful, peaceful,’ from the very first day of the political movement on the 14th of February.”

Authorities rearrested Sharif less than a month after his release from prison on June 19, 2015, nine months before the end of a five-year sentence. Sharif was one of 21 opposition activists Bahraini authorities alleged had been involved with a group calling for democratic reforms and a republican form of government. They were found guilty of attempting to change the constitution and monarchical system “by force.” The court reasoned that “force” does not necessarily entail “the use of weapons; rather force may be exercised in other actions, such as organizing and leading popular demonstrations as a tool to pressure the government.”

In a January 12, 2015 letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sharif’s wife, Farida Ghulam, described the trial as “a farcical attempt to demonize the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression.”

“The continued detention of Ebrahim Sharif is one more piece of evidence, if any were needed, that Bahrain is a serial abuser of the right to free speech,” Stork said.